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Racing Commentary

Email Lew at lewboyd@coastal181.com

Billy Betteridge, Glendale, California.
From DISTANT THUNDER: When Midgets Were Mighty,
by Dick Wallen (Dick Wallen Collection)



He was one of the earliest competitors and he immediately became a superstar. But the whole thing somehow seemed unlikely. Baby-faced Billy Betteridge was so palpably different from the rest of the emerging Midget racing community that you had to wonder how long he would last.

Joe Betteridge's bungalow on Division Street in Glendale, CA, was not in the image the Roaring Twenties conjures up. Life for the family Betteridge was God-fearing, tidy, and demure, and Joe supported it by a small garage out back.

One day a customer appeared, offering to trade a half-built doodlebug for a paint job on his road car. Young Billy's eyes about popped out. Quiet and unassuming, he was technically inclined and skilled with his hands. Over time his devoted dad allowed him to tinker with the curious arrival.

By 1933, at age 19, Billy had the car finished up, a Henderson twin-cylinder motorcycle engine under the hood. There were murmurings in the air about something new and cool - exhibitions for "Midget" race cars. Over to a track in Denver he went with his dad, anxious to test his creation. He came home bummed. The car did not pan out. That Henderson was just far too lazy.

Billy didn't look far for an alternative. It was right in the corner - in the family boat. He pulled out the Kaley outboard carefully so it could be replaced, fitted it into the car, and headed to Muroc Dry Lake to challenge the measured mile set up for the hot rodders. He turned a tic over 100 MPH, stunning the railbirds and even the outboard engine manufacturers. How was it possible to go that fast with a motor you start with a rope?!?

Encouraged, Billy entered the first Midget race on the 1/5th-mile Loyola Stadium in August 1934. Like Denver, it was a bust. Billy bounced off a competitor and cut down a tire. But that's not what upset him. He just couldn't get the torque he needed from the Kaley. He popped in a well-balanced Elto 4-60, four cylinder, 60 cubic inches.

Like Oscar Ridlon's Elto that fumed so famously in Boston Garden Midget shows back East, Billy's "Little Red Racer" became a top runner, also memorialized by that trail of puffy smoke spewing from the screaming two stroke. Though his obsession remained mechanical, the kid could sure drive.

He was being drawn into it, and the flow of a bit of purse money was certainly appreciated at the Betteridge kitchen table. Meanwhile, he was discovered as a darling item by the sport's increasingly noisy publicists.

The early Midgeteers - and their barn-storming Big Car brothers - were notoriously fun-loving, carefree, edgy. It was quite understandable, given the perils of the trade. Young and bashful Billy Betteridge was a foil. Here was a Sunday-school teacher, vice president of a religious organization, never a smoker, drinker, nor even a dancer. His smile was 24x7, and, though he was constantly sought after, he allowed no damsel into his busy life of racing and religion. A booklet his acquaintances penned about him explains that "without losing his old friends, he made new ones in racing; a little more rugged in some ways, but nonetheless genuine. It is almost impossible to work on a racing motor without sooner or later employing the use of profanity. Some of Bill's friends at times even found it necessary to call up the Deity."

It was hang-on time in 1934. His little car now anointed "the Power Lube Special," Billy and his Elto snagged 10 wins right off the bat, but he took most pleasure in a one-off event on August 5. Midgets had already become so popular that a major 75-mile road race was dreamed up to promote a housing complex being built in Greenwich Village. Sixteen entrants came to town. Billy's outboard had them all covered, even after he stopped with two to go to allow spectators to pour water from a stream into his radiator, using their hats as buckets.

That autumn was sensational, with six in a row at the glistening new Gilmore Stadium and 29 mains in other Southern California venues. He was MARA National Champ. He whupped the big boys: Curly Mills, Duane Carter, Ronney Householder, Hap Woodman, and his friend Bob Swanson, whom Chris Economaki believed "may have been the best motor racing driver America ever produced."

Perched on his Danny Hogan Offy, Bob Swanson (L) congratulated
Billy for winning his second Midget championship in 1936.
From DISTANT THUNDER: When Midgets Were Mighty,
by Dick Wallen. (Jim Chini Collection)

The face of the landscape certainly changed when Mills and Swanson each bolted on one of those potent new Offenhousers at the end of the '34 campaign. Everyone scrambled for the next two years trying to catch up. Typically, Betteridge was fixed on trying to make his own power, and he punched his Elto out to 100 cubic inches. He was fast and won, but suffered through continuous problems with reliability.

By 1936, the struggle over power became so contentious that an "Offenhauser Circuit" was organized to compete against all others in the National Midget Association, formerly the MARA. The NMA schedule was the weaker, and Betteridge was dominant, easily crowned seasonal champion, with three times the points of the second-place team.

Billy, still in the Little Red Racer, chases the snazzier entries of Louie Foy and
Karl Young at Atlantic in 1936, his 100 cubic-inch Elto still producing its emissions.
From DISTANT THUNDER: When Midgets Were Mighty,
by Dick Wallen. (Jim Chini Collection)

By June of the next year, Billy was in the top ten in NMA points and moving up, still focused on the technology of speed. But something unusual happened up in Fresno. At a race on the 6th, Billy just couldn't seem to get the Elto hitting right, and he surprised everyone by saying he was going to go back home to celebrate the baptism of some members of his pit crew rather than try to race. However, four brothers standing next to them in the pits offered to help put the car back in shape, and in the end Billy agreed to stay to compete.

Two nights later the show was at Atlantic Boulevard Stadium in Los Angeles. Billy was, as always, a favorite on the D-shaped dirt, but there was a something different in the air. Billy was cheerful, claiming to "be feelin' lucky." His mother, Hazel, was not so sure. She'd been to so many races, but, somehow, this time, she - and other family members - urged him not to drive.

At the very end of lap one, Billy was dueling with Pat Cunningham when they touched. It was a surprise moment, as reporter Ray Lavely recalled never before having seen Betteridge attempt an outside pass on a straightaway next to a guard rail. Billy was drilled by both Gil Guthrie and his brother Andy Guthrie from behind and was launched into a savage end for end. On the first gyration, his seat belt broke and Billy was airborne. It was a war zone. All four were hospitalized; Billy was dead.

Lavely wrote, "The greatest tribute ever paid a driver was given Betteridge when 6,000 fans to a man remained for an hour patiently waiting for an announcement as to his condition, and when Howard Langley told them that their beloved idol had passed on, they filed out in silence, the women weeping, the men with their heads bowed."

As it turned out, Billy had planned for the Atlantic race to be his last. Up in Fresno, the brothers who had helped him work on his car had pooled their coins and were going to buy the "Little Red Racer/Power Lube Special" right after the event at Atlantic. Billy had taken stock of what he had accomplished. He had a plan. He had done what he needed to do in the seat of that funny little car from the back of the garage.

In the beginning his real interest leaned towards the design table and the work bench, and that had never changed. Now he would be free to follow his real bliss and become an automotive engineer.

Billy Betteridge, 1913-1937.
From RACERS AT REST: A Celebration of Life and Tribute to Those
Who have Perished in Open Wheel, Open Cockpit, Oval Track Racing
by Buzz Rose, Joe Heisler, Fred Chaparro, Jeff Sharpe.
(Fred Chaparro Collection)

2015 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181

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2007-15 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181




























































































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